It’s a marvel to see how quickly Abed Muhaisen can whittle leafy designs through the thin metal sheet. He bends over the scabbard of the knife like a classical guitar player plucking an intricate tune. His left hand clasps the end of the hilt firmly while twisting the metal scraper rapidly with his right wrist. He leans from one side to the other as he urges the tool along the metal plating, creating curves resembling a sprouting vine that begins at the base of the scabbard and branches outward to embellish the entire silver plate. Actually, it’s not silver, but a combination of zinc and brass. Abed likes to use recycled materials, but that’s neither here nor there. My main focus while watching him is a fascination in how he carves these designs with such ease.
Abed stops for a second, looks up and grins at me. It’s a great grin; the guy’s got a winning smile, coupled with the energy of a man half his age. He’s 55, and he’s been designing knives since he was a teenager. Given this, it’s not surprising he makes it look easy. He creates 8-10 daggers a day, along with his business partner; I haven’t done the math, but suffice to say that he’s made a lot of these things. His store is located next to the Roman Amphitheater in the heart of Amman, Wast al-Balad, which is the central and historic market area of the city.
Abed comes from a family who has designed daggers for over a century. “Making the knives has been a family business since 1850… In the West Bank, in Palestine at first, before there was any border, it was just the Bedouin area. As a knife maker, [we made] a very important tool to the Bedouin people. So it has been five to six generations of this, my father, his father, his father and so on. As for my son, I don’t know, he’s still a kid , and nowadays it’s a different culture, he has to go to school and has different things to do, Internet and television. In our days, there is nothing like, it was just helping your father. ”
Naturally, Abed got his start in knife creation by helping his father; it took him years of observing and helping out before he was able to start training in the craft. “As an Arabic family, sons always help their fathers with their work. I have seven brothers and two sisters, and all of the seven started helping starting from seven years old. So each day you learn something new. At 15, I made my first knife… I was in school and after school I was helping my father. In the summer I was helping my father. Because it’s a family business, all of the family works and helps each other. Because of this, it’s not difficult to learn, because you see him at work and doing things.” It took Abed about 4 months before he successfully made a good knife.
It’s a subculture craft with a deep history throughout the Middle East. Dagger design has an important traditional aspect for many Jordanian communities today, as well as once being a cornerstone in Bedouin society. “In Jordan, there are two families that make knives. One is my family and the other is Hushan family in the north of Jordan in Irbid. The local name for the knife is the shabaria, and the shabaria is a very important tool for the Bedouin society. It was something important for the younger people and older people as well. It was for defending yourself in the desert against wild animals or against enemies, it’s [also] like a kitchen knife and a defense tool.”
Not all of the knives are designed in the same way. Different designs are designated for different cultures, Abed explains. “When you see a knife, like the Jordanian knife,
you’ll know it’s Jordanian because of the design, straight on one side, and curved slightly on the other. The people in Jordan are of different groups, some are Kurdish, some are Sarkisian, from the Caucuses, and each group has their own knife. In [traditional] Jordan they have the shabaria, in the Caucuses they have a slightly longer, straight blade, in Turkey they are curved. Each one has a different design.”
That said, there are signature traits that Abed applies to his dagger designs. For example, he prefers using olive wood to any kind of ore or metal for his hilts. He likes the lightness of woods, paired with a surprising sturdiness and strength. It’s also easier to carve designs out the hilt, for example the head of a camel or a horse. The nature of the knife has changed over the generations–it’s acquired a more ceremonial role in the time since he’s taken up the mantle of the business. “After the ‘60’s, last century, [note: I love that he must clarify which century],
things started to really shift, there were more rules… the police force was there protecting people from different things, so you don’t need it to defend. So it became smaller, to hide under your clothes… Now, if you want to eat meat, you can go to the butcher and buy a lamb already cut, before you would have a big lamb and cut it up yourself.”
The year 2016 is a time long past the slice-up-your-own-lamb days, so Abed is able to take some greater artistic leaps with his designs. He keeps a variety of different types of knives, some simpler for practical use, while others are extremely elaborate. There are a few rules he abides by, for example not etching any animal designs into the blade of the knife itself, as that goes against Islamic practice. While I watch him work, I ask what happens if he screws up the design. He states that he primarily sticks to plants and vines, which he tells
me are easy to work around. The real catch is when he etches someone’s name into the blade for a custom design that then is rejected. “Sometimes if you put a name in the side and [the customer] comes to you and says ‘I don’t want this knife,” so I take the name and make it into a design so the customer doesn’t know what it is.” It’s kind of like when people get a tattoo of their soon-to-be ex and then pay to have it redone as a leprechaun or something. Except with a knife, it’s much more elegant.
Abed spends a lot of time making knives for tourists now, though most of his customers are Saudi Arabian, where the Bedouin culture is still strong and the knives serve greater traditional roles. He’s traveled all over the Gulf area selling customized daggers in spots like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. His knives also serve as excellent gifts for government officials in the Middle East. He doesn’t sell as many to Europeans or Americans anymore. “After the planes hit the towers, security at the airports began to be more intense. I had many tourists who didn’t want to buy knives. They would think ‘Oh, if I got this knife I wouldn’t be able to take this onto into an airport because the security will think I will be trying to hijack it.” He rolls his eyes while he tells me this.
Because of the intensified airport security, paired with the greater tourist value versus practical use of knives, Abed has expanded into making all sorts of different things: coasters and clocks, as well as some stunning ceramic work. He explains that a knife builder requires the skill set of more than one trade, like aspects of carpentry and blacksmithing. Abed’s mantra for his most recent expansion from dagger creation to other items is plain and perfect: “If you work with your hands,” he says simply, “nothing is difficult.”